Earning a living in pioneer times was not an easy  task.  Before a crop could be put in, the tough prairie sod had to be broken.  This was done with a huge breaking plow drawn by five or six yoke of oxen.  Such a plow cut shallow furrows about twenty-four inches wide.

To plant the first crop of corn, the pioneer farmer used an ax to cut gashes in the sod two or three feet apart.  Then he dropped about four kernels of corn into each gash, and a child or a man following after covered the corn with a hoe.  Crows often pulled up the young sprouts of corn to get the kernel at the root.  Boys and girls had to chase the crows away by screaming at them or by beating on pans.  The corn was gathered in the fall with the husks on and piled in the barn to dry.  Later, a "husking bee," a party for husking corn, brought the neighbors together for fun as well as work.

After the first crop had been gathered, the field was plowed again and the sod was broken up into finer particles.  It was then possible to mark out the field with a stick or by a marker drawn by a horse.  Lines were thus made across the field three feet apart in each direction.  At the place where the lines crossed kernels of corn were dropped and covered by hand.  Often the whole family - father, mother, boys and girls - would help to plant corn.

Wheat and oats were sown by hand.  Back and forth across the black loam walked the sower, with a bag slung from his shoulder and his right arm swinging back and forth scattering the seed evenly.

By June the prairie grass was ready for mowing.  The pioneer used the scythe to cut his hay.  Then boys and girls or men and women spread the grass out to dry with wooden rakes.  When it was cured, it was stacked near the barn or sheds for winter use.

To harvest the wheat, oats, rye, or other small grain, the pioneer used a cradle.  Have you ever seen one?  The cradle was like a scythe with long wooden fingers extending from a wooden arm that fastened to the lower end of the curved handle.  With this tool the cut grain could be laid in a swath or line.  Other men followed the cradler, as the person who cut the grain was called, to bind the bundles with straw bands and to place them in shocks.

After the grain had become dry it was threshed in a crude way.  The bundles were placed in a circle on a hard floor or a packed piece of level ground, with the heads turned in.  then horses or oxen were driven around and around on the heads of the grain.  The bundles were turned frequently with a fork, and the tramping continued until the kernels were separated from the straw.  Other pioneers threshed their grain with a flail.  This was a tool made of a flat piece of wood fastened to a handle with a leather hinge.  With it the early settler pounded the grain until the kernels were threshed out.  Later, grain was threshed in a separator run by horse power.

To clean out the chaff and dirt before threshing machines were used, the grain was tossed several times into the air.  Or if the settler had a fanning mill, it was used for this purpose.  In a fanning mill the grain ran from a hopper through a sieve, or perhaps two or three sieves.  Fans attached to a wheel turned by a crank blew away the chaff and dust.  Boys often spent weary hours turning the fanning-mill crank.

After the grain was harvested, the next task was to get it ground.  Sometimes a coffee mill was used to make coarse meal or flour.  Other pioneers made corn meal by rubbing the ears of corn over a grater.  Sometimes the grain was poured into a stump that had been hollowed out by fire and was then ground into meal by pounding it with a heavy stick rounded off at the end.

Soon mills run by horse power took the place of the hand mills and other means for grinding grain.  Some of these mills merely cracked the corn and these were known as corn-crackers.  Later, mills run by water power were built along the rivers of Iowa.  For a long time the mills were far apart.  Early settlers often drove fifty, eighty, or even a hundred miles to get their grain ground.  It was a rare adventure for a boy to go with his father to mill.  Even after the pioneer reached the mill, he might have to wait some time before it was his turn.  Sometimes going to mill took from two to three weeks.  Often a miller had to run his mill day and night during the grinding season.

When cold weather began, the early settlers butchered hogs.  Hams and bacon were salted down or smoked for future use.  The winter months were occupied with splitting rails, chopping wood for the fireplace, making crude furniture, fixing tools, mending harness, making ox yokes, and tending the live stock.

The Iowa pioneer had to build his own house, make his own roads, manufacture his own furniture, make his own tools, produce his own food, prepare his own meat, obtain his own fuel, and raise his own flax and wool for clothes.  What the settler did not raise he obtained by trading.  Money was scarce and little used.  Wheat was traded for flour at the mill, and the miller took his pay in grain.  Hides were traded for shoes and clothing.  Butter and eggs were exchanged at the general store for tea, coffee, and calico.  The doctor, lawyer, and editor often accepted cordwood for their services.  Stonecutters and bricklayers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, and carpenters worked for low wages.

Earning a living in pioneer days meant hard work with little pay.  The pioneers were glad just to get along, and to have a home.  Perhaps they knew that their hard work would make life better for the boys and girls in Iowa to-day.


Back to Stories of Iowa Index